Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Beast (2017)

September 9, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival), April 27, 2018 (United Kingdom), release dates
Directed by Michael Pearce
Screenplay by Michael Pearce
Music by Jim Williams
Edited by Maya Maffioli
Cinematography by Benjamin Kracun

Jessie Buckley as Moll Hanford
Johnny Flynn as Pascal Renouf
Geraldine James as Hilary Hanford
Charley Palmer Rothwell as Leigh Dutot
Hattie Gotobed as Jade
Trystan Gravelle as Clifford
Olwen Fouere as DCI Theresa Kelly
Imogen de Ste Croix as Melissa Healey
Tyrone Lopez as Nuno Alvarez

Distributed by 30West
Produced by Agile Films, Stray Bear Productions

A serial killer is terrorizing a small unnamed seaside community, and young women are the victims. At first, the plot of Beast doesn’t focus much on this part of the story; it becomes much more important as the narrative unfolds, after the main character Moll meets and falls in love with someone that her family members and friends disapprove of immediately. His name is Pascal, and the narrative thread about the serial murders is taken up again later in the film when Pascal becomes a suspect.

The credits begin, one by one, over outdoor scenes, including flower and candle memorial sites for young women. After the credits, Beast starts with Moll singing in a practice choral session. Her mother, viewers find out later, is the choral group leader. She tells Moll that she needs more from her, which comes across as a criticism in front of the choral group. As the camera closes in on Moll, the sounds of choral singing fade into dissonant sounds. Then the film cuts abruptly to the film’s title in Gothic type on a black background.

The film cuts from this title shot to Moll getting dressed in her room at home. While she talks in voice-over narration, the film cuts to scenes of an outdoor party and some shots of Moll looking very uncomfortable and unhappy: “I was obsessed by killer whales when I was a kid. They always seemed to be smiling. You know, they travel a hundred miles a day in the ocean. But in captivity, their soundwaves bounce off the walls and they become deaf and dumb. Some even go insane. I read about one whale that broke all its teeth trying to break free. It just got too much for him. He didn’t want to smile anymore.” The fact that viewers do not know to whom the voice-over narration is directed underscores the oddity of Moll’s words.

The party is for Moll’s birthday, and during this party, her mother makes her get out the champagne because Moll’s sister has just announced that she is expecting twins. Thus, the sister steals the limelight from Moll, and her mother celebrates the sister’s news by giving the sister the place of honor at Moll’s party. When Moll goes into the kitchen to get a drink of water before retrieving the champagne, she accidentally drops a glass. She picks up several of the glass shards and squeezes them to cut her hand.

(This blog post about Beast contains spoilers.)

By now, I had a lot of sympathy for Moll. She is portrayed as a tortured soul, trapped in a repressive family whose members don’t seem to value her or care about her happiness. But the film slowly reveals that Moll is not what she appears to be. In fact, her affinity for killer whales and the way that she describes them the night of her birthday party could very well be a description of her own place in the world. She is living in her own form of captivity, but the way she decides to break free turns out to be more destructive than a few broken teeth.

Moll has a nightmare that someone comes into the house and stabs her with a pair of scissors. She is often plagued by nightmares, but viewers eventually learn that they originate from her own misdeeds. When she was still in school, she stabbed a classmate with a pair of scissors. In her dreams, she plays the part of the victim, but in reality, Moll is the perpetrator.

I found myself asking the following questions as I watched the film:
Does the film’s title refer only to the serial killer who is terrorizing the small seaside community?
Is Moll’s mother Hilary a beast for beating her daughter? Moll mentions this in a conversation with Pascal, but is she a reliable narrator?
Are all of Moll’s family members beasts for treating her, one of their own, as a pariah?
Is Moll herself a beast for stabbing her classmate with a pair of scissors?
By the end of the film, the meaning of the title is a bit clearer; by that I mean that it could apply to many characters for many different reasons, but I think it is meant to apply to Moll specifically, which came as the biggest surprise to me.

Before I saw Beast, I had read that the film is difficult to categorize, and I agree with that observation for the most part. I am not at all fond of categories or categorizing, so this is hardly a drawback from my perspective. I do think a case can be made for calling the film a neo-noir, with its understated violence, constant threat of violence, fear, angst, alienation, and the feeling from the main character Moll that she cannot fit in.

The lighting in the film is another reason that I think Beast can be called a neo-noir. It throws viewers off kilter with the use of unusual colors: yellows, reds, blues. Moll lives in what seems like an idyllic seaside town, but some of its inhabitants have a dark side. Some of the bright sunny outdoor scenes are juxtaposed with scenes lit in unnatural colors, which adds to the sense that so much, and not just the violence occurring around the town, is out of kilter.

Beast is also a bit old-fashioned: So much of the violence happens off screen and thus is left to the viewers’ imaginations. It reminded me of low-budget films noir from the 1940s in that regard. I couldn’t find any information about the film’s budget online, so I’m not sure that this is an accurate comparison as far as budget is concerned. But the technique of leaving much of the violence off screen also adds to the unease and the feeling that the threat of violence is a constant in the story.

The narrative holds lots of surprises, which I always count as a plus for any story, on film or in print. The most intriguing detail for me was that both Moll and the viewers go through a transformation over the course of the narrative: Moll begins to accept the beastliness of her nature, and viewers experience a transformation in their understanding of Moll’s character. I said before that the film cuts abruptly to the film’s title (Beast) in Gothic type on a black background, and this happens right after Moll sings choral music with her fellow choir members. This small detail turns out to be an important clue about the title of the film. For the duration of the film, I was waiting for violence to come to Moll; I never expected her to be a perpetrator herself.

The absorbing and shifting story line, with its unexpected twists and turns, and characters who seem familiar but become less so as the film progresses make it hard to step back and examine the film closely on a single viewing. However you want to categorize it, Beast is a film worth seeing more than once.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

New York Confidential (1955)

February 18, 1955, release date
Directed by Russell Rouse
Screenplay by Clarence Greene, Russell Rouse
Based on the novel New York: Confidential! by Jack Lait, Lee Mortimer
Music by Joseph Mullendore
Edited by Grant Whytock
Cinematography by Eddie Fitzgerald

Broderick Crawford as Charlie Lupo
Richard Conte as Nick Magellan
Marilyn Maxwell as Iris Palmer
Anne Bancroft as Katherine Lupo
J. Carrol Naish as Ben Dagajanian
Onslow Stevens as Johnny Achilles
Barry Kelley as Robert Frawley
Mike Mazurki as Arnie Wendler
Celia Lovsky as Mama Lupo
Michael Ross as Ed Barnes
Robert Keys as Stan, Katherine Lupo’s boyfriend
Herbert Heyes as James Marshall
Steven Geray as Morris Franklin
William (aka Bill) Phillips as Whitey
Henry Kulky as Gino
Nestor Paiva as Martinelli
Joseph Vitale as Batista
Carl Milletaire as Sumak
Gloria Dadisman as Sumak’s girlfriend
William Forrrest as Paul Williamson
Ian Keith as Waluska
Charles Evans as Judge Kincaid
Mickey Simpson as Leon Hartmann
Tom Powers as District Attorney Rossi
Lee Trent as Ferrari
Leonard Bremen as Larry
John Doucette as Shorty
Frank Ferguson as Dr. Ludlow
Hope Landin (aka Hope Landon) as Mrs. Wesley
Fortunio Bonanova as Senor
Ralph Clanton as the narrator

Distributed by Warner Bros.
Produced by Edward Small Productions, Greene-Rouse Productions

New York Confidential begins with a mob hit on someone named Peter Andratto. He is killed on a New York City street, an event that leads to three murders: Andratto’s and two innocent bystanders. The New York City crime syndicate can’t let Andratto’s death go unpunished, and law enforcement authorities feel the same way about the two innocent bystanders.

The New York crime syndicate, headed by Charlie Lupo, hires a Chicago hit man, Nick Magellan. As a Chicago gangster and an outsider, Nick should be an unknown in New York City. He should thus find it easier to take his prey by surprise and then skip town. Political forces, who start by acting on the side of law enforcement, organize a commission to investigate the murders of the two bystanders and the violent street crime in general. When Nick Magellan arrives in New York, he and Whitey, a driver for the New York City syndicate, tail the object of their hit briefly until Nick can carry out the execution.

(This blog post about New York City Confidential contains spoilers.)

The rest of the film follows the two threads: the actions of the crime syndicate and the investigation by law enforcement. The investigation by law enforcement is not shown much on-screen. Viewers learn about it because of its effects on the members of the crime syndicate and because some in law enforcement cannot resist the financial gain that corruption and bribery can bring. As politicians and members of law enforcement are drawn into the corruption, they sometimes make an appearance on-screen, but the criminals’ conversations and their budding “business” relationships with the people they are bribing are what reveal most often the law enforcement side of the narrative.

One of the details that I find fascinating about the film is that the crime syndicate is headquartered in an office building. The head of the syndicate, Charlie Lupo, has a desk, an intercom, a secretary, a lawyer, and an accountant. At home, he has a servant, Ed Barnes. Barnes acts like a member of the family, which includes Charlie Lupo’s mother and daughter. The servant, in fact, offers a little bit of comic relief. Charlie Lupo is a lot like the business leaders he is bribing. I wonder if this was a subtle commentary on the state of business and white-collar crime in the United States in the 1950s. It makes me think that not much has changed in the white-color criminal underworld.

It’s not law enforcement that brings down Nick Magellan for all the murders that he has committed. It’s his own penchant for violence. (The word penchant is actually a small plot detail that I find amusing.) Eventually, everyone connected with the syndicate knows too much, and hits are ordered on the hit men who have been executing hits for a living. Nick ends as a victim of his own professionalism and expertise.

Anne Bancroft is another reason to see New York Confidential. She is great as the daughter, Katherine Lupo, of the crime syndicate leader. Katherine is a young woman at the start of the film who is realizing what kind of man her father is and the kind of people he does business with. Her part of the story could be called a subplot, but I found her part in the story the most fascinating. She is desperate to escape a life that she never created but one in which she is nonetheless trapped. She even manages to get away briefly and start leading her own life, but her father just can’t stop himself from interfering. Her story, like so much about the film, is tragic and reveals a lot about how far her father will go to exert his control over everything around him.

Did you happen to notice the long list of actors at the start of this blog post? The number of characters in New York Confidential is very confusing at times, and I had trouble keeping track of all of them. The fact that the lines between the criminals, politicians, and law enforcers are blurred repeatedly did not help. The DVD commentary by film historian Alan K. Rode and film writer Kim Morgan filled in many gaps in this regard. They also talk a bit about something that I noticed on first viewing and already mentioned in this blog post: the level of corruption in the white-collar world, past and present.

Morgan and Rode did not seem to have a script or any notes prepared in advance, which makes all the information they provide even more impressive. Their observations about the character actors playing the various parts helped me keep the identities of at least some of the characters straight and added to the fun. My favorite comment (and I paraphrase) comes from Kim Morgan: “Even the servant Ed is a goon!”

I’ll have to see the film and listen to the commentary again. New York Confidential is a tight film noir that shows crime doesn’t pay and isn’t particularly glamorous. And it’s such a satisfying story, even if it does show modern viewers that human nature hasn’t changed too much when it comes to money and power. Seeing it again will give me a chance to keep better track of the corruption on both sides of the law.